January 31, 1923, is the birthdate of Norman Mailer, prolific American novelist, journalist, dabbler in politics, macho provocateur and social commentator, whose sense of self-importance made him frequently obnoxious, but whose unceasing attempts to understand society better made him no-less frequently profound. Mailer wrote 12 novels, more than one of which exceeded 1,000 pages in length, but today, the literary consensus is that it was his works of non-fiction that were of more lasting value.
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Norman Kingsley Mailer – his Jewish name was Nachum Malek – was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, the hometown of his mother, the former Fanny Schneider. Her father was a trained rabbi, and owner of a grocery store and later a boarding house there.
Norman’s father, Isaac Barnett Mailer, was the son of Lithuanian-born immigrants to South Africa, and had himself emigrated to the U.S. in 1919. Barney, as he was called, made a living as an accountant and businessman.
How the world lost an aeronautical engineer
When Norman was 9, the family, which also included a younger sister, Barbara, moved to Crown Heights, Brooklyn. There, he attended P.S. 161, and then Boys’ High School, from which he graduated in 1939.
Only 16 years old, he entered Harvard that fall, where he made an immediate impression as a sharp dresser and braggart about his purported sexual conquests.
Norman initially studied aeronautical engineering, but during his sophomore year, began writing fiction. He is said to have soon set himself a quota of 3,000 words a day, hoping that the pace would enable him to rapidly expel the bad writing in his system. In fact, in 1941, Mailer won first prize in a contest held by the prestigious Story magazine.
He graduated college in 1943 and applied for a deferral from the army, based on the fact that he was in the midst of writing “an important literary work.” The army wasn’t impressed and Mailer was called up in the spring of 1944, shortly after marrying Bea Silverman, the first of his six wives.
Mailer was sent to the Philippines. There he spent most of his time in an army kitchen, though he used his one foray into battle, on the island of Leyte, as inspiration in part for his first novel, “The Naked and the Dead,” published in 1948.
That book made him an overnight sensation, selling more than 200,000 copies in a mere three months, and also receiving critical acclaim. Unfortunately for Mailer, the two novels that followed, “The Barbary Shore” (1951) and “The Deer Park” (1955), were both critical and commercial failures, and put him off fiction-writing for the next decade.
Other, later notable novels, however, included “The Executioner’s Song,” about murdered Gary Gilmore (1980, winner of the Pulitzer), “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” (1984, and Mailer’s favorite of his novels), and “Harlot’s Ghost,” about the CIA (1991).
Mailer the misogynist and the 'White Negro'
As one of the pioneers of the New Journalism, a more personal, experimental and subjective approach to writing about real life, Mailer covered a number of U.S. presidential nominating conventions, wrote about a 1968 moon landing and prizefighting and Marilyn Monroe, and was a cofounder of the alternative New York weekly The Village Voice, in 1955.
Probably the best-known of all his essays was the 1957 “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster,” in which he critiqued a tendency among middle-class whites to emulate the involuntary, on-the-edge lifestyle of American blacks, viewing its music, poverty and lack of sexual repression as more authentic and more fitting for a time of cultural conservatism and the looming threat of nuclear apocalypse. It remains an open question whether the essay was patronizing, if not racist.
Less of a question was whether Mailer was a misogynist, or at least anti-feminist. Certainly, the fact that he stabbed (twice) his second wife, Adele Morales, at the end of a night-long party, contributed to that reputation. The attack, with a penknife, but requiring emergency surgery for her, followed Mailer’s announcement, in the autumn of 1960, that he was running for the Democratic nomination for New York City mayor. He took his candidacy seriously, though it’s not clear that many others did – he came in fourth out of a field of five.
Mailer was belligerent, profligate, and full of himself. Appearing on the "Dick Cavett" talk show in December 1971, for example, together with frenemy Gore Vidal (no slouch himself at the art of confrontation), Mailer reportedly head-butted Vidal in the green room, and later on stage, he became so aggressive in his insulting of the other writer that the normally gracious Cavett turned on Mailer. But he was politically engaged, unafraid of taking on unpopular causes, always interesting, and sometimes profound.
He died on November 10, 2007, of acute renal failure, shortly after the publication of “The Castle in the Forest,” the first volume of what was intended to be a semi-autobiographical fictional trilogy. He was survived by nine children, one of them adopted.
This column marks the end of history – or at least the end of “This Day in Jewish History.” After writing the column four and a half years, six days a week, it seems like a good time to other journalistic pursuits. Writing the column has been a wonderful education for me, and it’s my hope that some of you feel the same way about reading it. I expect to see you again soon in these pages and at haaretz.com.